Much ado about absence of trust

The purpose of diplomacy is to explore a congruence of diverse interests and to work through the acceptance of the other side’s realities

The hurt was palpable and justified as President Pervez Musharraf complained to seniors in the media at the famous Agra breakfast on July 16, 2001. He had heard a television anchor asking whether he could be trusted. One of those present, Shekhar Gupta, Editor of Indian Express, recalled, on January 31, 2004 that Gen. Musharraf had made concessions in his talks with them which no Pakistani leader had, until then. The media’s talk of trust reveals chauvinism and, not surprisingly, a profound ignorance of the diplomatic process.

We do not have a monopoly on virtue. On June 16, 1997, the Cabinet Committee on Security decided that India should go ahead and disclose the stock of the chemical weapons in its possession. India could not but sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. The deadline for disclosure it imposed, June 26, 1997, had to be met. It is another matter that only a few years earlier, in a solemn document, India had flatly denied that it possessed such weapons.

Did Indira Gandhi “trust” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when she invited him to a summit in Simla in 1972? Leaders do not meet because they “trust” each other. They do so precisely because trust is absent, interests clash and adjustments are necessary.

Churchill-Stalin agreement

The classic, but highly neglected, case is that of the Churchill-Stalin Percentages Agreement in Moscow at 10 p.m. on October 9, 1944. Hitlerite Germany’s fate was already sealed. Armies of the allies were racing towards Berlin, its capital. Allied troops had landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944 to open the delayed Second Front. Churchill knew that Stalin suspected the delay was deliberate. Trust was very much in short supply. In such a situation, Churchill thought that an accord with Stalin was necessary. “A settlement must be reached on all major issues between the West and the East in Europe before the armies of democracy melted” (italics in the original).

Four months later, in Moscow, he concluded just such an accord with Stalin as he records in Triumph and Tragedy, the 6th Volume of his memoirs of the Second World War. “The moment was apt for business, so I said, ‘Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have ninety per cent of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty about Yugoslavia?’ While this was being translated I wrote out on a half-sheet of paper.”

This is what he recorded: In Romania, Russia was to have a 90 per cent interest; likewise, for Britain in Greece. One half each in Yugoslavia and Hungary and 75 per cent for Russia in Bulgaria. Churchill pushed the paper across to Stalin who made a large tick upon it in blue pencil and passed it back. “After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, ‘Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper’. ‘No, you keep it,’ said Stalin.”

That enormous gesture of trust by a distrustful man was the product of a negotiated reconciliation of conflicting interests. On October 12, Churchill explained to his colleagues: “The system of percentage is not intended to prescribe the numbers sitting on commissions for the different Balkan countries, but rather to express the interest and sentiment with which the British and Soviet governments approach the problems of these countries, and so that they might reveal their minds to each other in some way that could be comprehended. It is not intended to be more than a guide, and of course in no way commits the United States, nor does it attempt to set up a rigid system of spheres of interest. It may however help the United States to see how their two principal Allies feel about these regions when the picture is presented as a whole.”

Stalin kept his word. He pulled back the Greek Communists from certain victory, only to see the United States wreck the Percentages Agreement. The Yalta Declaration of February 11, 1945 envisaged free elections in the Balkans. Stalin felt cheated and imposed his fiat on Eastern Europe.

Thirty years later, on April 5, 1976, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Counsellor in the U.S. State Department, whom Henry Kissinger used to call “Kissinger’s Kissinger,” advocated an “organic” relationship between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, recognising its aspirations for “a more autonomous existence within the context of a strong Soviet geopolitical influence.” Such realism at Yalta might have averted the Cold War. Spelling out the elements of Churchill’s policy, Kissinger noted: “A settlement along these lines before 1948 would have restored Europe to its historic dimensions … Churchill was far ahead of his time. Had he not lost the 1945 election, he might well have given the emerging Cold War a different dimension”. Europe lost out and Pax Americana was established with fateful consequences.

If the age old truths escape most in the media and academia, it is because of the pronounced strand of narcissism in our thinking, the self-obsession. The Chinese are no less proud; only more realistic and more studious.

Foreign Policy recognised Prof. Yan Xuetong as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world. He is dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsingua University in Beijing. He pointed out last November, “It is not even clear what mutual trust between nations means. There are countless examples throughout history of cooperation between major powers that lacked any of this so-called mutual trust. In fact, the lack of trust has been the norm in successful international relationships. … Policymakers in Beijing and Washington should keep in mind that mutual trust is a result rather than a premise of long-term cooperation. Instead of ‘mutual trust,’ Beijing and Washington should drop the wishful thinking and spend more effort on building a realistic relationship based on their interests.”

The prime purpose of diplomacy is to explore a congruence of diverse interests. But diplomacy is stultified if there is no acceptance of the reality of an interest other than our own. That has even been the besetting sin of Indian foreign policy from Jawaharlal Nehru to this day. We share the American disdain for diplomacy and demand proof of “trust” before agreeing to a summit.

But, who should be judge of trust? Chiefs of Army Staff freely air their distrust. A former National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, told anyone who gave him an ear that he did not trust Gen. Musharraf. For a former Intelligence Bureau man, his self-assurance was impressive. Inputs by the Army and intelligence are important. However, trust is always a political judgment to be formed by informed politicians. As the wise Salisbury warned the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, “You listen too much to the soldiers … if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe”.

Nor are TV anchors a good guide. Kissinger’s censure is just: “Ubiquitous and clamorous media are transforming foreign policy into a subdivision of public entertainment. The intense competition for ratings produces an obsession with the crisis of the moment, generally presented as a morality play between good and evil having a specific outcome and rarely in terms of the long-range challenges of history. As soon as the flurry of excitement has subsided, the media move on to new sensations.”

On the bogey of appeasement, Hans J. Morgenthau remarked, “Future historians will have to decide whether the Western world has suffered more from the surrender at Munich — that is, from appeasement as political practice — or from the intellectual confusion that equates a negotiated settlement with appeasement and thus discredits the sole rational alternative to war.”

Boundary disputes

The shrillest cries of “appeasement” will rent the air if there is any significant move for a settlement of Kashmir or the boundary dispute with China. These disputes impede India’s rise to its full stature in world affairs. On both disputes, a settlement is possible. The Four Point formula rules out Kashmir’s secession, makes the Line of Control “irrelevant” — not permanent, which Pakistan rejects — reunites Kashmir de facto, and guarantees its self-rule. On the boundary, each has its non-negotiable vital interest under its control — the McMahon Line and Aksai Chin.

But India failed to implement two international agreements on Berubari — the Nehru-Noon agreement of September 10, 1958 and the Indira Gandhi-Mujibur Rehman agreement of May 16, 1974. And Berubari is as big as a football field.

(A.G. Noorani is an advocate, Supreme Court of India, and a leading constitutional expert. His latest book, Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir , was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.)

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